Rappin’ with the Rapporteur: A Public Event on the Financialization of Housing

On October 26, 2012 UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Raquel Rolnik returned to New York City, the starting point of her official U.S. fact-finding mission in October 2009.  The event, co-sponsored by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) and the Center for Place Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center (Grad Center), brought together members of community-based organizations, notable academics, human rights organizations and media makers to hear Rolnik’s presentation of new thematic findings based on four years of fact-finding missions around the world.  Venerable Luon Sovath, winner of this year’s Martin Ennals Award for his work on forced evictions in Cambodia was also in attendance.


The program opened with a tribute to Neil Smith the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Grad Center who passed away in September.  The tribute was led by Marnie Brady, a PhD Candidate at the Grad Center and student of Smith, and Dr. Peter Marcuse, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University and long-time colleague and close friend of Smith.  Neil was a kind and giving individual and a huge promoter of what he called “radical urbanism”, an alternate approach to traditional urban planning.  It confronts power and widely accepted methods of urban place-making.  This is the type of participatory development that planners like Peter Marcuse and Tom Angotti also embrace.

Brittany Scott, Program Associate in NESRI’s Human Right to Housing Program, and Eric Tars, Director of the Human Rights and Children’s Rights Programs at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, recapped the Rapporteur’s historic 2009 mission to the United States.  Scott highlighted the collective work of over 70 grassroots organizations that put together the visit, while Tars detailed the Rapporteur’s meetings with elected and appointed officials.  And, while Tars reminded the crowd that Rolnik left us with over 100 recommendations for reform in the United States, Scott took us back to 2009 when Rolnik stated that “she could only echo our voices but [we] need to stand up and make our voices heard.” Rolnik’s 2009 visit was, as Scott stressed, a “seed of resistance” that we must continue to build on as the housing crisis in the United States has only gotten worse.  



Rolnik shared new findings from a thematic report on housing finance as it impacts the right to adequate housing.  Her report-back touched on a move by governments worldwide from providing outcomes to facilitating and supporting demand in the housing market, which, she says, has led to the “financialization of housing” – the transformation of housing from commodity to financial asset as dealt with by housing policy.  As options outside of mortgaged homeownership shrink, housing systems are less able to ensure adequate housing for the poor, and increasingly the working and middle classes.  The “product” people are forced to buy on credit, Rolnik noted, is not adequate housing! 


The program ended with with a discussion moderated by Shani Jamila, Human Rights Project Director at the Urban Justice Center, and included, along with Rolnik, such notables as New City Councilmember, Leticia James, William Pepper, Human Rights Lawyer, and Tom Angotti, Urban Planner and Director of the Center for Planning at the City University of New York, Hunter college.  Perhaps the most interesting question from the audience came near the end the of the event: “where can the best practices be found”?  Rolnik pointed to the grassroots once more, noting that significant experimentation has been going on on-the-ground in communities with non-market cooperative ownership, such as community land trusts in the United States.  Probably, she said, the alterantives we need at the policy level are ones that build on these successful micro-experiments and spread up.   

To read her report, visit

To find out more about the 2009 U.S. mission, visit